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NIAGARA FALLS – Is it the air? The water? Or is it possibly just a symptom of the depressed economy that many of the new restaurants opening in the city over the past few months have been decidedly small in size?

Venus, the Greek/Mediterranean restaurant examined in this space a month ago, opened in the cramped confines of a former sandwich shop on Pine Avenue. Hopefully, its authentic, tasty and generous offerings will enable it to outgrow that space soon and spread its wings in larger, more luxurious quarters.

Ditto for this month’s spotlight spot, which occupies an even smaller – and more inconspicuous – space at the corner of 30th and Niagara streets. Tummies restaurant, which also took over a former sandwich shop, serves up fresh, authentic Latin/Puerto Rican cuisine in ample portions.

It’s a struggle for any restaurant to get off the ground in these parts, as evidenced by an alarmingly high failure rate for non-franchise joints, so perhaps starting out small while trying to establish a clientele is good strategy.

Let’s hope so, because places like Venus and Tummies fill a void that shouldn’t exist in a city so culturally diverse.

Tummies – the full name is Tummies, A Little Latin Taste – opened last fall in a space that allows for little more than a stove, griddle and home-style deep fryer. That’s probably sufficient, though, for what appears to be a two-person operation.

Four small tables and a ceiling fan constitute the “dining room” portion of the business. That’s why it appears, from our experience, that takeout is the preferred manner of consumption here. It’s not required, mind you, just recommended.

The folks who run Tummies may be limited by space, but their ambition is unlimited. While we waited for our food, the nice-but-somewhat-frazzled lady behind the counter told us that she tries to accommodate customers in any way possible, even offering “whole-hog” catering.

Her philosophy likewise comes across on the paper menus, which state that “the preparation of our meals [reflects] our own family traditions.”

She explained how her Latin goodies are made unique by the choice and amount of spices employed in their preparation, a testament to the African, European and Caribbean tastes that influence Latin dishes.

I was expecting something spicy but was quickly corrected by daughter No. 1, who has traveled to Puerto Rico.

“Puerto Rican food isn’t all that spicy,” she assured me.

On the day of our visit, the proprietors were trying to overcome an illness in the family, so certain dishes were not available. The owner explained what we could order, and we tried to sample a little bit of everything but missed out on the steak dishes, which I heard from another customer were great.

So we tried an order or two of Pastelillos ($2 apiece), a roasted pork hoagie ($5.99), a barbecued rib special ($8.49), a healthy sampling of the plantain chips ($2 per order) and a small sampling of the Latin staple rice and beans ($3.59).

Since some of the things we had wanted were unavailable, the nice lady offered us a free all-you-can-eat supply of the chips. Since we ultimately decided to take our order home to eat, she included a good amount of the wickedly hot chips, which triple as appetizer/side dish/snacks.

They were served with a pinkish, garlicy smelling sauce that Steffany insisted was horseradish-based. I’m not quite sure, but it did impart a nice taste, not overpowering at all, given the potential ingredients.

The chips themselves – deep-fried slices of plantains – were fresh, thick and piping hot, but not nearly as sweet as I had expected. Again, Stef corrected me, saying that plantains are not sweet and banana-like unless ripened to the extreme. These were still on the green side, starchy, and she deemed them “excellent” due to the unusual freshness.

The Pastelillos – fried meat pockets – were thick and doughy and filled with a moist, cheesy-tasting meat, along the lines of what you might expect to find in a Philly cheese steak sandwich. Similar to a tamale, they were quite tasty. That sauce worked well for them as well.

My biggest complaint was with the rice and beans, which I thought could have benefited from an infusion of snappy spice. As served, they were kind of bland; we doctored them with some cayenne pepper sauce, which provided some added spirit.

The barbecue ribs were the highlight: subtly saucy, on the sweet side, tender and meaty. The combo came with three big beef ribs and rice and beans. They were good enough to eat the bones.

The pork hoagie, an eight-inch sandwich filled with cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion and ketchup or mayo, had us on the fence: Some liked it, some didn’t. The meat was a little on the fatty side, which made portions quite chewy, and by the time we ate, the lettuce and tomatoes had wilted into a soggy soup, but that was our fault.

The taste was pretty good. Again, not particularly spicy, but OK.

Tummies also offers whole chicken dinners, chicken fingers, pork chops, breaded cube steaks, chicken soup and the usual assortment of sides, so there’s a pretty good chance they can please any palate.

Here’s hoping they can help in that neighborhood’s turnaround, which has already been bolstered by some new taverns, shops and restaurants, not to mention a nice little pocket park up at Gill Creek.

Ole!

email: niagaranews@buffnews.com